“Couldn’t put my phone down
It’s all the same to me
Just faces on a screen, yeah
I’m trying to realize
It’s alright to not be fine on your own” (comethru – Jeremy Zucker)
Alone | Together
Recently, my musician friend Jabin Law starts a new music project “Alone Together”. Alone Together is a follow-up project of the release show “Alone | Together” of his album Ahistorical (2021). The oxymoronic combination of “alone” and “together” brings a compelling rhetorical effect, and a driving force that motivates me to ponder what it means to be alone.
In Praise of Solitude
As a subscriber to the project, I was asked to write on a postcard about my experience of being alone, and send it back to Jabin. He then sends our message randomly to another anonymous subscriber.
In the postcard, I wrote:
Does solitude have a positive or negative meaning? When one hungers for attention, solitude is loneliness; when one needs to be on one’s own, solitude is therapeutic. I’m not afraid of being alone. I like being in my own little world if I want to. I can go running with my earphones on, listening to my favourite music or audiobooks. Or I can make myself comfortable at home with a coffee and reading. To me, solitude is great – I enjoy solitude.
People nowadays can’t let themselves get bored. With mobile phones stuck in their hands, we check social media constantly. Listen to our personal soundtracks to suit our moods. Play video games. We do all these while commuting, standing, lying in the bed, or even having meals with or without company. But if you ask someone: “Are you happy? Are you fulfilled?” They may tell you the opposite.
What’s lonelier than reading friends’ IG and Facebook posts… when your flesh-and-blood friends are right in front of you?
Ah, look at all the lonely people… where do they all come from?
In Praise of Tranquility
Tranquillity is a scarce resource. It’s getting harder to enjoy some peace of mind even at home. Working from home means we get less headspace for our own thoughts. The television is always on. YouTube keeps playing different sorts of videos or music; your family wants you to help with washing dishes, cooking, doing laundry, passing tissue papers… We get so little time listening to our minds’ voices, reflecting on what we do and who we are.
All these noises around – the hustle and bustle, the distraction – make it very difficult to empty our minds for creating new ideas and keeping track of our thoughts. They disguise as “choices”, but it turns out we have no choice to get away from them at all. Our own voices are submerged in this sea of noises.
This greatly impacts how I approach what I like the most in my life: projecting my voice in my creative works, like my music.
Music, Solitude, and the Silence between the Notes
I came from a rock background, fronting my first band, innisfallen, in the early 2000s, and releasing our only album Reallusion. I enjoyed what we had created because it recorded what had happened in our minds when we studied at the university and started our careers. When we were less addicted to the Internet. When we shared our thoughts through chatting, sharing CDs, and gigging around the city. The album represented OUR voices: emotional, full of angst, and independent.
We took pride in our creative juice and the outcomes. But even as the band’s frontman, I never had the confidence in my own voice, so I would rely on imitating famous singers. At the time, I thought the melodies we wrote sounded better in their voices than in mine. The music was often deafening during rehearsals and performances – we didn’t have the luxury of using in-ear monitors. My singing would get drowned in the blasting drums and amplifiers. My voice strained and struggled as I tried to hit high notes. Is it me who is singing, or am I merely imagining being someone else?
How a Band Finds their Voice
Voice is not limited to my singing voice, but also the sounds we make as a band. Here comes another problem: production as a creative process. Recording music is very easy nowadays. With a laptop, a recording device, and musical instruments, anyone can produce their music from their bedroom. With no concern over costs such as buying recording tapes, we can layer as many tracks as we like.
I always have a question: how much should I add to a song before it’s “enough”? A demo project of Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” (downloadable via Logic Pro X, Apple’s recording software) has over 30 tracks. Another project, Beck’s “Colors,” has 135. I was already panicking when we recorded 15 tracks at the same time, fearing that it would crash my laptop. But my drummer, a veteran in the music scene, would complain that places in our song feel “empty”, or not “thick enough”. He would point out that the ambience does not fill up “spaces” behind the instruments and vocals audible in the track. This means I might have to add a few layers of keyboards or synthesisers, double-track all guitars, and add harmonies or octaves above and below…
So that the song doesn’t sound “boring”.
The Space Between the Notes
But I would wonder: why can’t I leave space in a song? It turns out I’ve relied on other voices who tell me how to do a song, too much that I don’t trust my own taste, my creativity, and my artistic licence anymore. We have recorded a few songs for which I still have not yet done the mixing.
I took some time off and revisited the influences that had shaped who I am as a musician. The major source of inspiration has always been The Beatles, but I want something less polished and less extravagantly produced. I want to listen to the composer’s raw energy and emotions when everything is stripped down.
Perhaps this will help me understand where the line is between too many tracks and too few. It seems to me that it’s not just about songwriting: what can we learn from the records to get back peace of mind in a life full of noises, wanting to be heard, and FOMO–fear of missing out?
McCartney (1970) | Getting away from the clamorous Beatles’ stardom
In rock-and-roll history, many great albums were recorded at (admittedly, big) homes, instead of in fully-equipped recording studios. Sometimes the band wanted to get rid of digital production for more “organic” sounds from tapes. Some they wanted to strip down the musical arrangements so that they could focus on how their songs tell stories. Maybe they just wanted to start over.
Paul McCartney just wanted to start over. The Beatles ended like the finale of a firework show in 1970. Before that, they had introduced Indian instruments to Western music, reversed tracks, avant-garde sound collages, the roof-top performance… and “The End”: the last song all four of them did together, with a sequence of guitar solos, and a big finish with an orchestral accompaniment. Lennon walked out, and McCartney announced: The Beatles were no more.
McCartney, who had been so invested in the Beatles, was devastated over the disbandment and fell into depression and alcoholism. To get away from the limelight and nurse his wounds, McCartney retreated to his Scottish farm with his new wife Linda and their children. Getting better, he returned to London and did his first solo album, with the encouragement of his wife.
Out of Solitude, a New Sound for Paul McCartney
McCartney (1970) took a homemade, minimalistic approach, compared with the solo albums of the other three ex-Beatles, which were recorded in studios. He recorded most of the tracks in this album with his newly bought 4-track recorder, played all the instruments, and sang all the tracks (occasionally with Linda’s backing vocals) in the 35-minute home creation.
The album contains songs from the Beatles era, such as “Junk”, first recorded as a demo at Harrison’s home in Surrey, “Teddy Boy”, written during his meditation trip to India in 1968, and “Maybe I’m Amazed”, recorded shortly before The Beatles’ break-up. There were no elaborate musical arrangements with strings or brass sessions, state-of-the-art Moog synthesisers, or even overdriven guitar tracks commonly heard in bands in the late 60s and early 70s. Most songs were recorded with a vocal, an acoustic guitar, a bass and minimal drum grooves.
The simplistic approach lets McCartney’s bass-driven grooves stand out and push the songs forward. The warm Hofner or Rickenbacker tone cut through the mix, adding melodic “lead bass” to the recordings. The absence of elaborate orchestral arrangements also meant his piano playing came through. Listeners could also pay more attention to his melodies and vocal range. McCartney sets a tone defining what “Paul McCartney” sounds like, and does not need elaborate productions to create his sounds.
The Spareness of the Arrangements Emphasizes the Songs’ Themes
Perhaps because of the thinness of the overall sonic effect, a sense of solitude lingers. This kind of solitude seems like McCartney’s reassessment of his career, his state of mind, and his life as a whole. The lyrics didn’t need to explicitly be about loneliness; the melodies didn’t have to be melancholic. Soft drums accompany the acoustic guitars and the single-tracked vocal in “Junk”, depicting a “broken-hearted jubilee” and a “sentimental jamboree”.
Thoughts of escapism are evident in “Every Night”, but the wounds are slowly healed when McCartney sings “every night I just wanna stay and be with you”. The more uplifting “Man We Was Lonely” reassures the listeners: “now we’re fine all the while”, and the singer ends with a final cry in “Maybe I’m Amazed”. As Langdon Winner said in Rolling Stones, “Maybe I’m Amazed” is the sub-theme of the song, in that “the terrible burden of loneliness can be dispelled by love” (Winner, 2017, para. 8). The light treatment over instrument mixes allowed the musician to tell his stories with all sincerity and commitment to starting over.
And perhaps he doesn’t care whether you like it or not. Music critics may condemn McCartney as a subpar, under-produced LP containing a compilation of unfinished tracks. But the album narrates the processes of how Paul McCartney decluttered his mind and decompressed, before embarking on his 50-plus years of music journey, which continues even now.
Perhaps I need to declutter my mind, too. I need to not be self-conscious about whether people like my voice.
Re-Thinking my Voice
McCartney helps me consider again what matters most in creating, recording and producing music. The idea matters. Sincerity matters. Storytelling – in my own voice – matters.
“Less is more” is a cliché, but there’s some wisdom in it. I start by finding my own voice first. Since I have practised how to make my singing voice more like my speaking voice, my vocal cords have been less strained. I don’t have to belt when singing higher notes. I also don’t have to imitate other vocalists anymore. There is no better voice than my own for narrating my own stories.
When I’m writing a song, I concentrate more on the singing and less on the guitar playing. I then play with my song ideas with just my voice and acoustic guitar, before deciding what to add, or whether to leave the song as it is. The most important thing to me is to not burden my mind with musical arrangements; I just want to make good takes for my demos.
I still enjoy doing music in full production, as long as my band is happy to develop the ideas together. But filtering out unwanted noise helps me focus on what matters most. I’m now leveraging the summer break and recording some demos at home, using the simplistic approach to capture my ideas, finish them and share them.
Only through sharing my ideas can I get feedback, to which I have the right to listen or not. And sharing the song actually marks the end of a process, so that I can move on to the next. I think that’s the way to “declutter”.
Reclaiming Tranquility and Solitude
I also feel that all my anxieties come from the need for recognition and approval. If I can’t make peace with myself, I will always live in the shadow of what others think of me.
Solitude seems to be the antidote. I don’t mean to be hiding away and living like a hermit, but it seems necessary that I have a “detox”. A digital detox.
If a day in my life is a song, all the happenings around me and in the metaverse are the tracks. I need to remove certain tracks to keep my life less noisy.
I’ve put my phone down and deleted social media apps from it. I’ve stopped scrolling mindlessly first thing in the morning. And I’ve stopped checking my phone every two minutes. Of course, I still check and update my social media occasionally, but I don’t need to keep myself updated with every piece of news to form my own thoughts and opinions.
Now the core tracks are myself and the people close to me, as well as my creative and scholarly works, long reads, and working out. It may sound monotonous but what’s the alternative? To add a bunch of clutter so that I can’t even hear my own thoughts? Honestly, that, to me, is the TRUE monotony.
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This is “JOMO” – the joy of missing out!